Proof of what is unseen

Review: Educated, by Tara Westover

My heart goes out to Tara Westover. I rooted for her and felt defensive for her during 100% of the story. Other people’s epistemological sins harmed her. Precisely because of her love for her parents, those sins maintained a hold on her far, far into a life that, on the outside, looked “normal.” Obviously, hare-brained conspiracy theories are not harmless fun; they can radically stunt human lives and break vital relationships. And yet this refugee from turmoil managed to write a truly beautiful and insightful book that is, in addition, a page-turning story. (I heard her say in an interview that she listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast to learn how to write. I signed up myself, hoping for the same boost to my literary abilities.) Well, well done, Tara.

But I’d like to point something out to my fellow Goodreaders [for whom I first wrote this review] that I fear will get lost in our collective rush to see Tara’s story as a confirmation of mainstream Western values: Tara’s story is a conversion story, not a de-conversion story. She didn’t merely de-convert from a hare-brained worldview; she actively converted to a different worldview. That latter worldview is not described in her book in any detail. But it means, among other things, that her story isn’t over. Which view of the world will she live out? If she adopted (as one would naturally expect?) the worldview of the people who educated her at Cambridge and Harvard, I would point out that this view is not a natural default, a neutral and objective place to be, a direct view of the world. It, too, is based on assumptions and beliefs that not everyone shares. It views the world through lenses worn by a minority of humanity, especially historically. It, too, contains suppressions of the truth.

Because Tara did not directly describe her current worldview, I cannot and will not critique it. Again, my primary feeling for her is appreciation and defensiveness. But I would encourage readers to reflect on their own views. Friends, do not to make Tara’s life-thus-far a feel-good story for mainstream Westerners. It’s unsettling to realize that, given an alternate environment, you might be capable of believing as the Westovers do (indeed, their view of essential oils is at least half-accepted by a disturbingly large number of college-educated American women). But I’d encourage you, reader, not to assume that because they are wrong you are right. Put yourself in the shoes of people—like myself—who regard the predominant Western view, the secular and materialist view, as itself hare-brained. The ideas that something could come from nothing, that life could come from non-life, that mind could arise out of non-mind—I regard these as ludicrous in the extreme. The idea that religion can and should be moved to the margins of society I regard as impossible and therefore, in a very real way, self-delusional. Some non-empirical “vision of the good” is going to rule every culture. And it is not clear to me that the West has escaped delusions within its own vision.

I regard the prevailing worldview among Western educated people as having similar overall effects on Western society to the ones that survivalist, conspiracy-theory delusions allegedly (though I do believe Tara, I feel I have to use that word to maintain a modicum of fairness!) had on the Westover family. Yes, I think it’s quite literally crazy to believe that the Illuminati are secretly running the world, that the Holocaust was bankrolled by greedy Jews, that the medical establishment is wicked and ineffective, and that consulting or balancing (or whatever it is) one’s chakras is God’s means of bringing health. I found it revealing that Tara’s mom had previously ascribed such beliefs to the desperation of the ill—and that certain injuries did land Westovers in the hospital despite their disbelief. And I’m not persuaded of the truth of Mr. Westover’s worldview by the fact that he was willing to suffer for it. In fact, it is his willingness to let his own children suffer for it—keeping them out of school, making them work physically dangerous jobs in which they were indeed seriously injured—that confirms what he ought to have known: he was living inside a set of delusions.

But is that so far from what Western materialism is doing to its youth? Direct cause and effect on such a large scale is impossible to prove; people will resort to their worldviews, their presuppositions, to explain even cause and effect. But from where I stand, inside (by God’s grace, but still with many human limitations) a biblical worldview, it looks like sexual promiscuity, the erosion of a coherent moral framework more generally and its replacement with self-actualization, and the combination of over-confidence in the deliverances of science and the under-confidence in the possibility of binding *moral* truth—all these things, fruits of a materialist worldview, are hurting our culture profoundly. Ironically enough, the next audiobook in my Libby app playlist is Our Kids, by Robert Putnam. I expect to see once again that the West’s values are not serving our kids much better than the Westovers’ values served theirs.

Tara had to fight hard—and I admire her so much for this—to reconcile her love for her family with her growing awareness that they lived on their own epistemological spirit-planet. This was most evident in their refusal (allegedly) to protect her from a physically abusive and emotionally manipulative brother. But it was evident in many other ways: I’m glad she escaped. I’m sad that reconciling her familial love with her education had to mean distancing herself from parents who (allegedly) chose extremist beliefs—and a very troubled son—over their gifted daughter. But I think she did right. I think, ultimately, that people who demand that you believe overt untruths (the biggest one being, “My sins against you are all in the past”) in order to have a relationship with you are best served, best loved, by refusal. “Honor your father and mother” does not mean, “Join them in their delusions.”

But you’re going to have to join somebody; there are no truly independent thinkers. How can we avoid group delusions? The Bible says—and if you bristle at that phrase, you especially need to read on—that the creation itself testifies clearly to the “eternal power and divine nature” of God. Acknowledging this truth is the only way to truly escape the rough and tumble, the push and pull of merely human perspectives. All humans are on the same plane. If some are “taller” than others, and see farther (I think Tara is such a one), still none of us enjoys a God’s-eye view. None of us is truly above the fray. We need divine grace to reach down and tell us what he sees from his perspective. This is the only way to avoid the delusions we all stumble into—too often willingly—on this sin-cursed earth.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

4 Comments

  1. J. Peterson on December 17, 2018 at 7:41 pm

    While I agree with everything you said. I can’t stand these nutjobs who believe in things like a “Bilderberger” group, Trilateral Commission, etc. Even if there were such organizations, they could never hide their “conspiracy” well enough to be some secret, unseeing power. I think we need to be honest enough to look at our own lives and the weird conspiracy theories that we do not denounce. For example, I’ve heard many people in our circles say that Billy Graham is some type of “anti-Christian ecumenical false teacher”. I cringe with embarrassment whenever I hear people go of on these fundamental conspiracy theories that actually are believed by those in our circles. Sadly, many in our circles also voted for Trump. That guy is a conspiracy treasure trove! How can anyone say with a straight face that they voted for him. He is a birther who actually believed this embarrassing and ludicrous theory that Obama was not born in the USA.

    I like your review, but I hope we do not count our own groups as somehow any different when we have plenty in our own orbit who believe in their own conspiracy theories.



  2. Mark Ward on December 17, 2018 at 7:59 pm

    I’m afraid I have to agree. Conspiracy theorizing is an equal opportunity trap; all groups (?) seem to have people who buy into them.



  3. Steve on December 18, 2018 at 7:33 am

    These are great points. The book itself looks very interesting, and the poster above makes cogent arguments that I can’t argue against. It really is hard to somehow say that these other groups have a problem and are an anomaly when we have as many fringe conspiracy theorists in our own orbit. I dare say we even have more!

    I too cringe with embarrassment when I hear people in our circles bewail Billy Graham and call him an “anti-Christian harm to the cause” or whatever. I don’t know how old you are, but I can tell you that in our circles this conspiracy theory was running rampant for decades.

    Another one is music. I remember pastors telling us that rock music had some type of “Satanic agenda” out to corrupt our kids. I was embarrassed to invite my relatives to church, fearing they might hear something like this. These guys went into great histrionics telling us how the music scene was some “organized agenda to corrupt our kids.” The only “agenda” is money. Rock musicians don’t have any “message” they want to give us. The only “agenda” they have for us is whatever they think will sell and earn them money. We have given Hollywood too much credit. If they really were this organized enough to conspire to put out some hidden message in music, I think we could learn from them how to be organized and manage an efficient organization!

    I see a mention of health in this lady’s background. Once again, we have our share of complete fringe lunatics in our own camp and cannot claim innocence here either. Have you ever met any of these anti-vaccination people? This is, sadly, a growing belief that vaccinations are “bad” for us. I’m not kidding. You can’t make this stuff up! The distrust of the medical industry is beyond embarrassing. I am on several medications myself, and it helps keep my healthy. Personally, I don’t know anyone in my church above 40 who is not on statin drugs. High cholesterol is an epidemic in this country and statin drugs help this problem. Some of these nutjobs even have an agenda against drugs such as this and somehow claim they are “bad.” These people think that the medical industry, and specifically the pharmaceutical industry has some type of “agenda” they are trying to push. It is beyond lunacy!

    Like the poster above mentioned, Trump was a birther who claimed that Obama was not born in Hawaii. He also has these weird conspiracy theories about Muslims and Mexicans wanting to “cross our borders”, as if that’s some sort of bad thing! We need to quit hiding in our corner and face up to the fact that our churches are filled with several people who actually voted for Trump. We need to quit pretending these people don’t exist.

    I am the son of an alcoholic and and a recovering addict myself. A lot of people in our circles have some type of conspiracy belief about Alcoholics Anonymous! I’m not kidding! We all know that once an alcoholic, you are always an alcoholic and are never fully cured. There are people out there who believe that a person can “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” and somehow magically recover from alcohol addiction and no longer have a problem with it.

    You’d think that these people would shrink away out of embarrassment, but sadly that is not the case. If anything, these people are growing! They seem to find new conspiracy theories all the time. Just recently I saw a feed on my Facebook page from several friends about some “Satanic” sculptor put up in state building somewhere. First off, there is no such thing as a “Satanist” and people who literally worship Satan. But my Facebook feed said this was a “real Satanic” sculptor. Like I said, there is not such thing as a literal “Satanist”, and even if there were, they would never put up an actual sculptor in some state building.

    The book review and the previous comments are spot on! I think this is a good reminder for all of us in our fundamentalist circles that these are not only some fringe groups in Utah that no one has ever heard of who are into these dangerous beliefs. These conspiracy theories are no longer hidden and are in our own circles! We can’t run from them or treat this book as an interesting story that affects only others. I think we have just as much, if not more, of a problem with this than the sect in this woman’s book. It’s time we take this issue in our own circles seriously.



  4. Ms. Shirley B. on December 22, 2018 at 6:34 am

    But I think she did right. I think, ultimately, that people who demand that you believe overt untruths (the biggest one being, “My sins against you are all in the past”) in order to have a relationship with you are best served, best loved, by refusal. This sounds like white privilege to me. I’ve hear some ultra-right conservatives say that “I don’t need to apologize for the racism of my American ancestors. I didn’t do anything wrong.” The racial divide in this country is only getting larger. If white people refuse to apologize for the sins of their grandparents and great grandparents and their great-great grandparents, we will never get anywhere as a country.



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